Consumer GuidesElectrical, Telephone & Data

Surge Protectors

Loud, driving rain, a blinding flash of lightning and a window-rattling crack of thunder jolt you awake. You think, “no harm done,” roll over and go back to sleep. But the next morning, you notice that the milk in the refrigerator is warm and when you go to turn on the computer to get your e-mail, the monitor flickers, the cursor freezes and your hard drive crashes.

You have been the unfortunate victim of a voltage surge.

Voltage surges are an especially nasty and costly example of the power interference that occurs in homes every day. Actually, there are three main forms of power interference that can impact a homeowner. A voltage dip happens when motors in high-draw devices such as dishwashers and refrigerators come on and greatly reduce the energy available for other devices. Flickering lights are a common symptom of a voltage dip.

Electromagnetic interference, which is generated by everyday electrical activity, can scramble computer memory and disturb TV and radio reception even though it doesn’t cause physical damage to appliances and electronic devices.

The most serious form of power interference is the voltage surge. This momentary rise in voltage can start inside or outside a home and damage sensitive electronic equipment such as computers, home entertainment centers, treadmills, and all the other – often expensive – equipment found in most upscale homes.

There are two types of surge protection available today. The most common and familiar is the surge suppressor, usually seen in the form of a power strip, which can handle surges up to 6,000 volts. The surge arrestor, on the other hand, is installed in or near the main service panel of a home and offers protection against surges up to 20,000 volts, such as from lightning.

Surge suppressers are designed to handle the smaller surges which can occur hundreds of times a day in a typical home’s wiring when devices with motors, such as hair dryers, refrigerators and water pumps, are turned off. Suddenly the energy these devices were consuming is diverted elsewhere in the form of excess voltage. Surges also occur when the electric company switches power from one geographic area of the grid to another and supply and demand in the region changes.

Although they may never be strong enough to destroy electronic components, these frequent small surges can slowly break down wiring insulation, causing electronic devices to operate improperly or wear out prematurely. Plugging your sensitive, expensive electronic devices into a surge protection strip can help your equipment last longer and work better.

For more complete surge protection, you will need a whole house surge arrestor, which has the capacity to protect against large surges up to 20,000 volts. Designed to protect switches/outlets, appliance motors, the circuit breaker box as well as all the wiring in the home, arrestors take up where surge suppressors leave off. Good suppressors can cut down surges to 330 volts, whereas most arrestors don’t reduce surges much below 600 volts. Therefore, both kinds of protection are advised for maximum protection.

Whole house surge arrestors should be installed at the home’s electrical service panel by professional, licensed electrical contractors. There are dozens of different makes, models and styles of surge arrestors on the market, which vary greatly in both price and quality.

The type and size of the service panel, how full the panel is, as well as the investment in appliances and electronic devices that need to be protected all play a role in determining which surge arrestor should be installed.

Your service professional, after inspecting the home and service panel, will make the recommendation as to the appropriate product to be installed.

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